Toward a Theology of Addiction


Welch-Edward-Addictions-150x250pxWEDNESDAYNormally books on addiction fall under the heading of psychology, medicine, or (most often) the ever-popular “self help.” The first word in that last category aptly summarizes the predominant focus and foundational value of the addiction literature genre, which has little if anything in common with any worldview that one might derive from Scripture. 

Sometimes subtly, other times overtly, the focus rests squarely on the self, and what might make it happier, “healthier” (whatever that is!), and more “effective.” If God is in the picture at all, he’s depicted as a well-meaning Rogerian shrink who wants to unconditionally affirm and commiserate with us while above all respecting our “right” to choose our own path.

Welcome to the world of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), as Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton call it in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, (New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press, reprinted 2005).

When Christian authors get into the act, the results can be painful, if for no other reason than that they frequently expose an embarrassing lack of biblical and theological reflection on a subject that pertains directly to “life and godliness,” as the Apostle Peter called it (2 Peter 1:3). What even the best of them have frequently served up has been the fruit of utterly secularized thinking with a thin coating of Bible verses sprayed on, packaged in ornamental God-talk. As Jewish feminist atheist Wendy Kaminer pointed out 20 years ago, Christian involvement in the addiction-recovery industrial complex has been driven more by publishers’ bottom lines than pastoral imperatives:

Meanwhile, Christian therapy is a burgeoning field. Like Dolly Parton singing Gershwin, Christian crossovers to psychology combine a kind of pastoral counseling with the practice of individual or family therapy, often focusing on popular problems of addiction and abuse. Christian codependency books, like those produced by the Minirth-Meier clinic in Texas, are indistinguishable from codependency books published by secular writers, except for their reliance on Jesus. …

Religious writers justify their reliance on psychology by praising it for “catching up” to some eternal truths, but they’ve also found a way to make the temporal truths of psychology palatable. Religious leaders once condemned psychoanalysis for its moral neutrality (Freud made everyone “nice,” Fulton Sheen complained). Now popular religious literature equates illness with sin (Satan works through personality disorders), which makes psychology a penitential technique if not a form of exorcism. Religious writers stress repeatedly that psychology is only a spiritual tool; some therapists might consider religion a therapeutic one. But whether psychology has caught up to religion, infiltrated it, or been adopted by it, the most popular versions of both psychology and religion are becoming less and less distinguishable. Like Macy’s and Gimbel’s, therapists and religious leaders are happily staking out a common market.

[Wendy Kaminer, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions, (New York, NY, USA: Vintage Books/Random House, Inc., 1993), 124-125.]

A typically American, pragmatic response to this might be: “Why complain if it works?” (A variation on “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”) The biblical answer to that question is that not everything that appears to “work” on the basis of external appearances actually works in the realm of internal reality, as we see in the following parable that Jesus gave us:

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”

[Matthew 12:43-45, English Standard Version]

While the demons to which Jesus refers are not figurative, those for whom God does not fill the void they once sought to fill with their addiction find themselves in a situation comparable to the person in this parable. The one who cleaned himself up after the demon left failed to welcome the Lord into his life, presuming that he could leave himself “empty” of the grace of the true and the living God.

There is no such thing as spiritual neutrality. Addiction is merely a severe symptom of the addict’s idolatry, which is self-destructive as all idolatries are, and jettisoning one form of idolatry without repenting of the idolatry itself only masks the symptoms while failing to cure the disease. While I have here borrowed the language of the “disease model” of behavior, idolatry is not really a disease. Apart from situations where an organic brain problem is to blame, any bad behavior is neither an “illness” nor the product of an “illness,” except, perhaps, in some metaphorical or analogous sense.

I realize that I am not saying anything new here. Some may recall that more than 20 years ago the late Gerald G. May (1940-2005) wrote:

Addiction also makes idolators of us all, because it forces us to worship these objects of attachment, thereby preventing us from truly, freely loving God and one another. …

Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry. The objects of our addictions become our false gods. These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love. …

Whether we are conscious of it or not, for however long a particular addiction controls our attention, it has become a god for us. … However short-lived or minor our concern for something other than God may be, when we give it more priority than we give our concern for God and God’s will, we commit idolatry. Thus we all commit idolatry countless times every day.

[Gerald G. May, M.D., Addiction and Grace, (San Francisco, CA, USA: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1988), 4, 13, 30; italics his.]

Reading these excerpts after trudging through volume after volume of “Christian self-help” literature is like walking out the door of a smokehouse and inhaling fresh air. At least May’s words seem to ring true to Scripture. If we think of idolatry as counting on something other than the true and the living God to “save” us from what we think we need to be “saved” from, May comes close to nailing it as far as a biblical theology is concerned.

But so many times he stops short of the full biblical description of idolatry and the sinful human heart that practices it. Even the very first citation I provide above veers from the mark. Addiction does not make us idolaters (and I don’t think I’m being uncharitable or taking him out-of-context by reading him this way). Instead, addiction demonstrates that we already are idolaters. John Calvin hit the bull’s eye when he told us that “…man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols,” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.11.8, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, translator, [Philadelphia, PA, USA: The Westminster Press, 1960], 108; italics mine).

Building his view of humanity, in part, at least, on the foundation of his experience, May opens his first chapter as follows:

After twenty years of listening to the yearnings of people’s hearts, I am convinced that all human beings have an inborn desire for God. Whether we are consciously religious or not, this desire is our deepest longing and our most precious treasure. It gives us meaning. Some of us have repressed this desire, burying it beneath so many other interests that we are completely unaware of it. Or we may experience it in different ways—as a longing for wholeness, completion, or fulfillment. Regardless of how we describe it, it is a longing for love. It is a hunger to love, to be loved, and to move closer to the Source of love. This yearning is the essence of the human spirit; it is the origin of our highest hopes and most noble dreams.

[May, ibid., 1]

The first sentence here seems to intentionally echo Augustine’s (A.D. 354-430) famous, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” (fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te, [Confessiones, Liber I, Caput 1; (Confessions, 1.1)].). But it’s one thing to say that the hearts of sinners cannot rest until they do so in their Creator; it’s quite another to say that the hearts of sinners actually desire God. With this seemingly slight shift in wording May’s statement stands in jarring contrast to the portrait of fallen mankind that the Apostle Paul paints (and with which Augustine agreed) in the first three chapters of his epistle to the Romans—a mankind whom Paul later describes as God’s natural-born enemies (Romans 5:10; cf. Colossians 1:21).

And when May reasons in the fourth sentence that some of us have repressed our desire for God, he misses Paul’s point that, far from having a desire for God, in our unrighteous desire to avoid Him we deliberately suppress our knowledge of Him (Romans 1:18-23). Sure, we have a hunger for love (or whatever we think of as “love”), but we lost any hunger for love’s true Source when we rejected Him in the Garden. Our most fundamental need as sinners is not to have someone come along and point out that our most fundamental desire is for God. Just the opposite! Because our most fundamental desire is to be our own gods, our most fundamental need is to have that desire changed through something much more radical than May proposes.

May’s habit of almost providing biblical definitions for his terms becomes apparent when he writes, “Theologically, sin is what turns us away from love—away from love for ourselves, away from love for one another, and away from love for God” (ibid. 2). Yes, this is one way sin manifests itself, and for that reason May’s words are resonant with Scripture and experience, but it’s not what sin is. If we say, for example, that to break the two greatest commandments—love for God and love for neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40)—is to sin because “sin is what turns us away from love,” we are merely spouting a tautology: we are essentially saying “Not loving God and neighbor is sinful because it is not loving.”

But according to Scripture, what makes something a sin is that it constitutes open rebellion against the commandments of God—lawlessness (“sin is lawlessness” [ἡ ἁμαρτία ἐστὶν ἡ ἀνομία], 1 John 3:4b)—and requires the removal of God’s wrath (“propitiation” [ἱλασμός], 1 John 2:2). True, sin results in a choice that is in opposition to love (i.e., hatred), but the starting point for defining sin is not the hatred that is inevitably attached to the offense but the offense itself. So while it is true that Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” (John 14:15, ESV), and thus breaking His commandments is the opposite of loving Him, nevertheless, sin is not merely a matter of failing to love (much less “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places,” as some would have it). It is an offense against all that is good and all that is just, which is ultimately God Himself. Thus we cannot speak of how God forgives us and heals us (or even brings us to “recovery”) unless we first speak of how His love and mercy moved Him to satisfied His own justice by bearing the penalty of our sin.

Because May misses the radical nature of sin (radical both in the sense of “extreme” as well as “proceeding from the root”), he also misses the radical nature of God’s grace toward sinners. On the one hand, it warms the cackles of my Reformed theological heart when May writes, “Sin, then, is not just ignorance or moral straying, but a kind of bondage or slavery from which one must be delivered into freedom.” But exactly how is one delivered into his freedom? “Freedom is possible,” answers May, “through a mysterious, incarnational synthesis of human intention and divine grace.” (ibid. 114). But what kind of “bondage or slavery” is it that one can simply free himself from by a simple act of the will (the same will that is supposedly in bondage and slavery), a mere “aligning one’s intention with the God within us and with us” (assuming that God is really in and with everyone)?

On the one hand, it is stirring to read May’s bold declaration, “To put it bluntly, God became incarnate to save the addicted, and that includes all of us,” (ibid. 115). On the other hand, May’s doctrine of grace never proceeds beyond Christ’s incarnation, thus missing its goal. The question I asked my second grade religion teacher as I was preparing to take communion in the Roman Catholic church never receives a biblical answer: “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”

The Bible does not say that we are saved simply by being united to Christ in His incarnation. Paul is abundantly clear about this (cf. Romans 6). We are saved not merely through our union with Him in His earthly life, but Scripture focuses particularly on our union with Him in His death and resurrection, which were not designed to merely demonstrate “the extent to which God would go to liberate people from their attachments” and proclaim “absolute and unquestioned victory over attachment itself, over its consequences, and over its causes” (ibid., 113)—unless, of course, we are careful to define the cause and consequence of addiction as being sin and death, which May is not careful to do. Rather, union with Christ results in our sins being charged to Him on the cross and His righteousness being credited to us, thus freeing us from guilt and providing a just basis for His love to continue working through His life as it already worked for us through His death.

On May’s behalf it should be noted that in his preface he specifically disclaimed, “…I am neither a trained theologian nor a scriptural scholar… I ask you, then, not to read my words as authority, but to let them resonate where and how they will, with your own experience and sense of truth” (ibid., vi). So perhaps we should cut him a little slack while being grateful for how he succeeds where so much “Christian self-help” literature fails. And while he is apt to take us into the forest of mysticism (with St. John of the Cross as his guide, ironically) in search of his answers, still much of the advice that May gives at the end of his book, when sifted by Scripture, is surprisingly practical and appropriate for believers, and parallels much that may be found on the subject of our struggle with sin in the classics of Christian literature. But we are still left to look for a biblically-sound, contemporary theological treatment of addiction.

I trust that I have found it as I turn to  Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave: Finding Hope in the Power of the Gospel, by Edward T. Welch, (Phillipsburg, NJ, USA and Greensboro, NC, USA: P&R Publishing and New Growth Press, 2001 and 2011). Ed Welch is on staff with the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and I’ve taken the liberty of copying the brief web site bio that CCEF has for him here:

Edward T. WelchEdward T. Welch, M.Div., Ph.D. is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF. He earned a Ph.D. in counseling (neuropsychology) from the University of Utah and has a Master of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. Ed has been counseling for over 30 years and has written extensively on the topics of depression, fear, and addictions. His books include: When People Are Big and God is Small; Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave; Blame it on the Brain; Depression—A Stubborn Darkness; Running Scared; Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away From Addiction; and When I Am Afraid: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Fear and Anxiety.

I will be reading the Amazon Kindle’s electronic version of Addictions. This puts me in an awkward situation when it comes to citing passages from the book: the Kindle does not use page numbers, but rather “location” numbers, which are virtually meaningless to anyone who does not also use a Kindle. For example, my Kindle Fire tells me that the following quote begins at “Location 76 of 4230,” which is found 2 percent of the way into the text:

What is the basic point of this book? Theology makes a difference. It is the infrastructure of our lives. Build it poorly and the building will eventually collapse in ruins. Build it well and you will be prepared for anything. The basic theology for addictions is that the root problem goes deeper than our genetic makeup. Addictions are ultimately a disorder of worship. Will we worship ourselves and our own desires or will we worship the true God? Through this lens, all Scripture comes alive for the addict. No longer are there just a few proof texts about drunkenness. Instead, since all of Scripture addresses our fundamental disorder of worship, all Scripture is rich with application for the addict.

[Welch, ibid., Kindle edition, preface, ¶ 3.]

Since most people read books from paper copies, telling them to look for this excerpt at “Location 76” is not helpful. So I’ve hunted around a bit for direction citation methods for Kindle eBooks, and it appears that The Chicago Manual of Style Online, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) style gurus, and the Modern Language Association (MLA) have all weighed in on the matter. The ideal method would be one that would enable people who are reading the same book in any format to find my citation as easily as possible, and I felt that the APA’s method came closest to doing that—although I’ve substituted their abbreviation “para.,” with a pilcrow, or paragraph mark (which can be produced using a PC keyboard by holding down the “Alt” key and typing “0182”). This is the method I plan on using as I proceed.

In the meantime, it should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention why I chose the above paragraph. Ed Welch is aiming for the bull’s eye that so many others have missed.

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